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A life in limbo

13 Oct

For H1-B visa holders, a layoff means a severe career derailment.

Until March, Ashwani Chandra’s life was proceeding according to plan. After getting a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington, he worked for three years designing pipeline systems for the oilfield services company Universal Pegasus International, and planned to bring his long-time girlfriend over from India after they got married.

Then, as colleague after colleague fell victim to the oil bust, it finally came for his job as well. For Chandra, whose H1-B visa was tied to his continued employment, the blow felt even harder. He was forced to return to India. The promise of a green card evaporated. His relationship buckled under the uncertainty.

“My friends and my supervisors knew about it, that I was going to get married this year,” Chandra said, in an interview in Houston in June. “They knew what they were doing to me, how it was going to affect my visa, my marriage.”

Chandra is among thousands of high-skilled foreign workers suddenly uprooted by the two-year contraction of the energy industry, not only losing jobs, but also homes, friends, and opportunities to achieve their own American dreams. The visa category, known as H-1B, has long brought workers like Chandra to the United States to fill shortages in skilled occupations — but it remains controversial, as critics charge that companies have used it to replace American workers with lower-paid foreigners.

Debate over the program crystallizes a broader divide on immigration and the role immigrants play in the U.S. economy. Many business leaders and analysts have argued that the country should welcome more well-educated, highly skilled people to stay the United States as a source of new ideas and new energy for an economy increasingly driven by innovation.

Many others, however, say that the program undercuts American engineers, scientists, and technologists by recruiting people willing to work for lower pay. For example, a mechanical engineer on an H1-B visa is paid $71,723 on average, compared to the U.S. average of $88,190, according to records. Rising awareness of that imbalance has spurred calls for reform — even from some politicians, like Hillary Clinton, who have supported high-skilled immigration in the past.

“The many stories of people training their replacements from some foreign country are heartbreaking,” Clinton told Vox News in July. “I want to see companies have to do more to employ already qualified Americans.”

That can seem unfair to immigrants like Chandra, who feel they’ve worked just as hard as native-born workers to get an education and a job, and want America to benefit from their knowledge, skills and productivity.

Chandra, 31, worked as a mechanical engineer in India before moving in 2011 to Texas, where his brother lived, to earn a master’s degree. He got his job at Universal Pegasus immediately after graduating in 2013, and lived like any other American young professional: finding a apartment near the Galleria, making friends, and traveling around the country.


He loved his work, too, and was pushed to take on more responsibility as the company’s business expanded. “That just made my growth exponential, I just skyrocketed,” Chandra says.

Then, the cuts started. Universal Pegasus endured heavy layoffs throughout 2015, as the oil bust rolled through oilfield services firms. Chandra’s supervisor kept saying that he would sponsor him for a green card when the market turned around, which was a carrot worth sticking around for — but the market never did turn. Instead, in March, he was called into an office with his boss and human resources managers, who seemed genuinely distraught as they delivered the news, promising to bring him back when business improved. (Universal Pegasus declined to comment on personnel matters.)

In the few weeks before he had to leave the country, Chandra looked everywhere for a new job, studying for additional certifications to make himself a more attractive candidate. But as tough the market has been for any kind of oilfield-related engineer lately, it was even harder for those who require employers to pay steep fees if they’re hired on.

“Companies are trying to save money on soap and toilet paper,” Chandra says. “They don’t want to spend $5,000 on an H1-B visa.”

Records show that Houston employers request more H1-B visas than those in almost any other city — 17,432 in 2016, compared to number one New York City’s 36,122 — with many of visa-holders working in teaching hospitals and as IT contractors. Judy Lee, an attorney at the Houston-based immigration law firm Foster Global, has had a front-row seat to the exodus of foreign workers in recent months. While software engineers have an easier time finding work in other fields, Lee says, those in the oil and gas industry have very few options.

“It’s been pretty sad, because a lot of our clients who are on H1Bs have been here for quite a long time,” Lee says. “Some are recruited from abroad and come in for the first time on their visa, but most went to school here.”

It’s especially difficult for those from India, like Chandra, for whom the wait for green cards is the longest: The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service is still processing applications from more than a decade ago. If you lose a job while your green card is pending, you lose your spot in line.

Visa holders also don’t have the safety net that American citizens have when they lose jobs. Chandra didn’t file for unemployment benefits, because of cruel Catch-22: To receive benefits he had to look for work, but he couldn’t look for work because of his visa status, and risked losing a chance at a green card down the road if he got caught.

The Obama administration has taken small steps to make it easier for people here on H1-B visas, like allowing their spouses to work legally. Meanwhile, a coalition of technology executives has pushed for legislation to lift the 65,000 cap on the number of H1-B visas granted annually.

Chandra would at least like to see a six-month grace period for visa holders to get new jobs after getting laid off. Clinton has even proposed “stapling green cards to diplomas” of foreign students who graduate in high-demand fields. But Congress’ appetite for welcoming more foreign workers has been spoiled by news of companies laying off scores of American employees and outsourcing the work to firms employing lower-paid foreign workers.

That kind of thing doesn’t appear to happen often at large energy companies, which generally just hire the best candidates they find at engineering schools, and pay them well. They do, however, hire outsourcing firms like Infosys — the biggest requester of H1-B visas in Houston — for their IT operations. Infosys workers on H1-B visas make an average of $82,000 a year.

Chandra understands the complaints with how the system is gamed to disadvantage American workers. Still, he wishes it didn’t prejudice public opinion towards those who excelled in school and have essential skills to help the U.S. economy grow.

Now, Chandra is back in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, managing his family’s real estate holdings and working to start a fish farm. He has received a job offer from another energy company in Houston, but it doesn’t have work for him to do yet. So he’s in limbo, stuck between reality and possibility. He could get an engineering job in India, but it would never yield the same earning potential or opportunities for advancement.

He misses some small things about living the United States, like his stargazing equipment, which he had to leave behind. But mostly, he misses the sense of putting his hard-earned skills to use.

“Sitting idle with good credentials is a bummer,” Chandra said via email. “Once you get into this, you want to stay in.”